Why Europe doesn’t need Cumbria’s coking coal

This post is by Valentin Vogl, an academic working on sustainability transitions in the global steel industry.

This was supposed to be the UK’s climate leadership year. In November, global leaders will gather in Glasgow to try to tame and temper humanity’s climate disruption. Meanwhile, a mere 137 miles south in Cumbria, the UK is set to do the polar opposite and open up a new coal mine.

This colliery’s yearly capacity would be 2.5 million tonnes of coking coal, a high grade type of coal used in steel production. Only a seventh of the output would be used in the UK, the rest is supposed to be shipped to Europe. In a recent letter, the Climate Change Committee has advised the government to reconsider the plan, and international commentators have accused the UK of jeopardising its credibility ahead of COP26.

One of the main arguments of the project’s proponents is that there is no alternative to coking coal for steel production. This is not true. The European steel industry has long turned its strategic eye away from coking coal and towards increased recycling and hydrogen.

Steelmaking methods are having to change   
In steel production, coking coal is first converted into coke, which is then used to supply heat and fuel the chemical reaction in the blast furnace. To produce a tonne of steel roughly 350 kilogrammes of coke are needed. Coke has a special characteristic that makes it important in the blast furnace: it can carry very high weights without crumbling. So far, scientists have not come up with a non-fossil fuel alternative that has similar mechanical properties.

The European Union’s climate targets oblige a 55 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 (from 1990 levels) and carbon neutrality by 2050. For the steel industry, this means that long trusted production methods must change. In the industry’s own words: “This cannot be achieved with existing technologies. The technical potential for reducing carbon [in the traditional blast furnace route] has been exhausted.”

To achieve these targets, the industry has two primary options. For a long time, the go to idea was to capture off-gases and permanently store them underground. When the 2015 Paris Agreement made clear that eventually emissions must go down to zero, this option lost much of its appeal. To reach zero emissions with the blast furnace, large amounts of sustainable biomass are needed to replace as much coal as possible in the process. While this can be done in theory, it is going to be expensive without providing any more benefits except emission reductions.

Hydrogen is the new coal        
The alternative is to get rid of the blast furnace and electrify steel production, most prominently through using green hydrogen, produced from water with renewable electricity. This seems to have inspired confidence in the European steel industry in recent years. Firms covering 87 per cent of coal based steelmaking in Europe are undertaking research and development work in hydrogen steelmaking. More than a third of them have already said they will abandon the blast furnace in favour of electrification. Counting only these implies a reduction of coking coal use by more than 10 million tonnes per year, equal to 400 per cent of the Cumbria mine’s total output.

No European steelmakers have decided to solely pursue carbon capture. The reason for this is probably simple economics. Carbon capture and storage and large scale procurement of bioenergy represent high additional costs without much added benefit. Hydrogen, on the other hand, changes the logic of steel production. It opens the door to new business models, for example by also offering large scale energy storage for the power grid. Moreover, renewable electricity is getting cheaper by the day and, with it, the production of low cost, renewable hydrogen.

The rest of the world is not sleeping either. The International Energy Agency is seeing a decline of global blast furnace capacity by 85 per cent until 2070, which can be understood as a contraction of the coking coal market of the same magnitude. Meanwhile, major efforts in hydrogen steelmaking are being reported by China, Japan and South Korea. Four of the five largest steel producers in the world have announced carbon neutrality targets for 2050. All five of them are working on hydrogen steelmaking.

Hydrogen direct reduction, as the new production method is called, has turned from research effort into a competitive race. The first pilot plants are already running and several large demonstration plants are planned to come online before 2030 (eg in Austria, Germany, Sweden and China).

And there is yet more bad news for European coking coal demand. With each year, more end of life steel scrap becomes available for recycling in Europe. A 2018 study by Material Economics found that up to 85 per cent of steel demand in Europe could be covered through recycling by 2050, up from 40 per cent today. Steel recycling occurs in electric arc furnaces using electricity . No coking coal is required.

The world is powering past coking coal          
The future for coking coal in Europe looks grim to put it mildly. Most of today’s coking coal consumers are looking for alternatives and the European steel sector is becoming more circular. It is a myth that steel production requires coking coal. A third of global steel today is made without coking coal, either through scrap recycling or gas-based steel production; and counting. Europe is racing against the rest of the world for a first full-scale hydrogen steel mill. Where was the UK when this train departed?

10 comments

  • It’s all very well talking about the great potential of hydrogen and increased recycling, but this post completely ignores the timelines. It will take many years before economically viable green hydrogen becomes a widespread reality, and part of the problem is not the green electricity, but the cost of electrolysis. Until the cost per kg of hydrogen dips below $1, it will still be less economic than alternatives like coking coal. Even in Australia with its abundant solar potential, they are not expecting to get hydrogen for less than $2 per kg in the short to medium term. The UK’s renewable energy supply is not yet sufficient to meet the current grid demands (and won’t be for many years), so where is all the excess going to come from for generating hydrogen to replace traditional fuels, especially as the priority surely has to be to decarbonise gas and oil heating? Further, the capital cost of decommissioning blast furnaces and installing electric arc furnaces is significant, and such projects take years to plan, design, permit and construct, and in an industry fighting against cheap far eastern imports, this is not something the European industry can do easily without government subsidy. What this all adds up to is that in the short term (i.e. the next 10-20 years), there is little option but to continue to meet regional demand using the traditional approaches until the costs, abundance and infrastructure is in place to facilitate a switch to hydrogen. And in that case, surely it is better to produce the coke locally than to be shipping it halfway round the world, adding to its carbon footprint.

  • Dr Ronald MacLean

    It really would be crazy to continue mining for coal. We do NOT need it. The Council need to think about helping develop a clean Green economy.

  • This is wonderful news. My husband and I have already put in a complaint condemning the opening of a new coal mine in Cumbria, but the UK government has done nothing to stop it. I do hope that you have sent on your report to the appropriate council. It is a disgrace that they are giving it the go-ahead. What chance will Cop 26 have if they do open it?

    Yours sincerely, Marlies MacLean.

    >

  • What this article fails to articulate is that new steel can only be produced using the blast furnace.

    Hydrogen only replaces less heat intensive processes and as mentioned, electric arc does not produce new steel, it only recycles steel.

    Therefore, as global steel consumption increases, how will new steel be produced.

    Similarly, coking coal is required to blast silicon dioxide in order to create metallurgical grade silicon for silicon chips. As of yet, no alternative exists.

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  • The train departed when the stationmaster at the time (Maggie Thatcher) shut down the coal mines and steel production instead of being smart and converting steel making to high quality/speciality steel production. Its one thing to decide you can’t compete but quite another to decide that the only alternative is to find a quite corner and slit your wrists and yet that is what the government of the time did.

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  • Dr David J. Greenslade M.A., C.Chem., F.R.S.C

    I am keen for improving the environment as I have great grandchildren. As a retired academic physical chemist I am horrified by some proposals of the so called environmental lobby! As has been pointed out by others here and needs emphasizing: a). Hydrogen reduction of ores is 10 to 20 tears away. b) current coking coal is imported into Western Europe meaning pollution by dirty oil burning shipping! c). How will all the hydrogen be produced? Currently most is from polluting conversion of natural gas. I think baking coal to produce town gas could be a source but don’t know of any work to do that. The gas from coke ovens contains hydrogen and the carbon dioxide from blast furnaces could be sequestered. So many coulds! So let’s hope the government enquiry backs the new mine!

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